I saw a new American play down in Philadelphia last month and it was great. Funny, nice plot movement, actually about something important; great. The actors were all good, it was a smart design, all very top-notch professional American theater-like.
And I was with a guy I’m collaborating with on a new thing and we don’t really know each other that well yet and afterwards he’s giving me a ride downtown so I can catch a midnight bus back to Rat City and we’re talking about the play.
And we say all of the obvious things and then I kind of sigh and we both get quiet, him watching the road and me staring at the dashboard. And I’m wondering if it’s even worth bemoaning the maddeningly inexplicable poverty of spirit and imagination that the play-like almost every play I see these days-dragged itself through, locked itself into, forced itself to fight.
“I’m just so tired of representation. There’s so much more you can do with a play.”
You know that relief you feel when someone says the thing you’ve been cranking about for so long you feel like a mad old crank just thinking about it? And you hear someone else say it and you think, for a moment, “Hey. Maybe I’m not so crazy after all.”
The play we saw was great. I don’t know why it’s not a commercial Off-Broadway hit. But for two hours every artist involved, starting with the playwright, strove for a degree of realism and believability with such dogged, single-minded focus it was as if someone had told them all, “If the audience doesn’t believe that these are real people in a real world, the jig is up, they’ll throw us all out of here.”
I’m going to let everyone on both sides of the footlights in on a little trade secret:
No one believes that the actors are real people. No one ever has, no one ever will.
And if you want to try your luck in that old, cracked “Mirror of the Real World” world, bright young playwright, I’ll let you in on another Great Secret:
Movies do it better.
And pay a hell of a lot more.
Think about it. Why are the best moments in the theater when something goes wrong and an actor has to acknowledge it, deal with it, then acknowledge that it was dealt with and then get back to the script?
I’ll give you two reasons: First, something actually happened in the real world, our shared world and the actor really did something, not blocking, not something she practiced and perfected in rehearsal, but something immediate and necessary. And second, for a moment the weight of us all trying to pretend we’re not in the same world is lifted and it’s an enormous goddamned relief, I’m here to tell you.
I’m not arguing style here, or at least I’m not trying to, because taste is taste and mine is mine, yours is yours and I can never convince you that one style is better than another because it doesn’t work that way. Pizza isn’t better than falafel, they’re just different.
What I’m arguing for is forward movement, progress in the form and the myriad possibilities live theater offers us if we’d just start using them.
Narrative-based realism is fine. A bunch of people pretending very hard to represent other, perhaps imaginary people in a designated space that is trying to look like another, perhaps imaginary space is fine.
But if you walked through all of the museums in New York and couldn’t find anything except representational paintings on the walls, you’d think something was wrong with the town.
It is as though we have been given the Alchemist’s Stone and we use it as a paperweight on our desk to trap the trash and trivia of our hurried, harried lives. We are given the very Tools of Creation and we dutifully consult the old, smudged Original Blueprints and replicate what is already there.
I’m realizing as I write this that my play Captain Overlord’s Folly or the Fool’s Revenge came out of this frustration with the impossibly narrow gate, through which “theater” is asked to pass in order to be admitted into the marketplace. I wrote a straight-up two act Shavian/melodrama that gets hijacked by a gang of homicidal clowns. I thought I was writing a history piece. I mean, what better way to talk about the eight year reign of Bush the Lesser? But, no. I was just trying to shake things up, I guess.
I mean, am I the only one getting bored of being politely bored at the premiere of each new sensational enfant terrible of the American theater?
Am I the only one who read Artaud’s No More Masterpieces and thought he meant it?
I wrote my Shepard and Mamet knock-offs years ago, when I was starting out. We all did. And some of them were pretty good. You’ve got to imitate someone when you begin, best to imitate the best. But at a certain point, being a mimic can’t be what it’s about.
My playwriting brethren and sistren: the Salesman Died, the Child has been Buried and that Streetcar can’t take you anywhere new.
Leave that field, honor it and move on.